Why Kids Need Grandparents

An expert details the challenges faced by the children of parentless parents.

By Allison Gilbert

We are witnessing a revolution in the way generations connect in America. All of our assumptions about grandparents being around longer than ever before — because they're living longer, after all — are simply inaccurate.

The truth is that for the first time in U.S. history, millions of children are actually vulnerable to having less time with their grandparents than previous generations. Between 1970 and 2007, the average age for a woman to have her first child rose by 3.6 years. During the same period, life expectancy for a 65-year-old increased 3.4 years. But consider another trend: [photo cover max-width=150 align=right]According to the latest federal research, while women in the U.S. overall are having fewer babies, mothers between 40 and 54 are having more. The increasing age of motherhood underscores a dramatic shift that's been taking shape for decades. In 1972, about 180,000 children were born to mothers 35 and older. By 2008, that number had more than tripled, to 603,113.

Think about it: Scientists have long held that grandparents play an enormous role in children's cognitive, behavioral, and social development. But if grandparents have such measurable influence, where does that leave kids, especially those born to older parents, who may have few or no grandparents in their lives?

Organizations like the Society for Research in Child Development, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have no studies that specifically measure how the absence of grandparents affects a child's personal growth and development.

But if there's value in examining the power of a particular kind of relationship, should you not also investigate the lack of it?

Unfinished Children

Tom Vates, a doctor in New Jersey, took an educated guess: "Imagine your child is a sculpture and your entire family — including your parents — are the shapers of that sculpture. You and your wife can provide 120,000 little pushes of the fingers to mold it and shape it, but your children are always going to miss some of the pushes that would have made the sculpture complete. You can still see the face, you can still see what it is, but some of those influences won't ever impact the final product."

If celebrated children's book author Patricia Polacco had never known her grandparents, she told me, "I would not have written the entire body of work. I am sure of it." The majority of Polacco's 70 best-selling books, she says, were inspired by the close relationship she had with her grandparents.

Frank Luntz, the eminent Republican consultant and pollster who has worked with Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, says he may never have gotten into politics if it weren't for his grandfather. In his 2009 book, What Americans Really Want…Really, Luntz wrote, "It was his influence that turned me into a political junkie and history freak, and for that I dedicate this book to him."

Novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard knows what her children missed growing up. In the anthology Blindsided by a Diaper (edited by Dana Bedford Hilmer), she bemoaned having had only one grandparent to offer her kids, screaming from the page, "Why did we get so ripped off?"

Every Grandparent Is Indispensable

My own children do have grandparents, but I can't help feeling they were also ripped off, because they never got to know my mother and father, or experience their unique blend of influences. Charles de Gaulle's axiom that no individual is irreplaceable is wrong. Our cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Children only get one set of maternal grandparents, and the one that belonged to mine is gone.

My childhood was richer because, for a while at least, I had all my grandparents. Most years we'd fly to Florida to visit them, and those vacations were full of firsts — like playing shuffleboard under palm trees, and collecting strawberries in "Pick-Your-Own" patches. Three of my grandparents died by the time I was 10, before they could teach me anything truly transformative.

Grandma Bertha, however, changed my life.

A month or so after my dad had died, I took my son down to Florida for a mini-vacation. I needed the sun and rest, but mostly we went because I wanted to see how Grandma was doing. While I was feeding Jake breakfast one morning, she opened her china cabinet and took out a shoebox from the lower shelf. Her sling-backs made a snapping noise as she walked over to the dining room table where we were sitting. Inside the box were hundreds of well-organized index cards. Her feminine script marked the categories: Electric. Maintenance. Groceries. Incidentals. She leafed through them with her fingernails until she found the one she wanted. On the left-hand side, under a list of many others, she wrote down the date and then drew a dark line with her pen to the right side of the card, where she added a dollar amount beneath an equally long column of numbers. "Grandma," I said in disbelief, "how long have you been keeping track of your bills this way?" Proudly, she answered, "I have cards here from 1938, the year your father was born."

Hard-Earned Lessons for a New Generation

An entire conversation then unfolded about money: I should always know how I'm spending it, she told me. I should always save it. I should never pay a bill without studying exactly what I'm being charged. Her lessons were the hard-earned ones of a woman who grew up poor on New York's Lower East Side; whose father forced her to quit high school so she could take care of her little sister after their mother died; and who kept the books for her husband's butter and eggs business. The lessons were especially important to share because they were ignored by my father.

Perhaps as a reaction to Grandma's extreme sensitivity to financial risk, my father spent his money lavishly. He went to fancy restaurants, traveled every chance he got, and collected pre-Columbian art. If my grandmother hadn't taught me her lessons, perhaps I would have panicked during the recent economic crisis. But I didn't. My husband and I had long before set aside a protective cushion.

Grandma Bertha's lessons had skipped a generation.

Allison Gilbert is the founder of Parentless Parents, a new and growing nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers. She is also the author of Always Too Soon and co-editor of Covering Catastrophe. Her work has been featured in the New York Times and on The Early Show, Extra!, CNN, and ABC News. The following column is adapted from her new book, Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children (Hyperion).

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